I was a bit disappointed by Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. I’m glad I read it: it gave me a new perspective on Wharton, because it was a different setting, cast of characters, and theme from those I’ve read before. It was wonderfully written, with Wharton’s elaborate and realistic descriptions of the setting and thought processes. As in the other Wharton novels and novellas I’ve read, there was a moral dilemma.
Yet, the overall mood to Ethan Frome was so bleak that I felt depressed both while I was reading and afterward. It also felt like a study in symbolism for high school students to read: it seemed Wharton was hitting us over the head with “subtlety” to discover if we just read close enough. I felt it didn’t have the depth that The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth had, nor the matter-of-fact dilemma that The Touchstone had.
I love Wharton’s writing: she so accurately captures a setting. Ethan Frome is mostly about the setting: the cold, New England town of Starkfield. This is the perfect winter book, and I only wish I read it a few months ago (there are already some hints at spring now, despite the snow that came Saturday). Starkfield is everything the name implies: a remote New England town with little exciting happening, few joys, and plenty of cold weather and snow, come winter. The novella is about the winter, especially the bleakness of winter that is our life.
When the unnamed narrator asks about Ethan Frome, he says, “He looks as if he was dead and in hell now!”
“Guess he’s been in Starkfield too many winters. Most of the smart ones get away,” says his companion.
The subsequent story, as told by the narrator, captures a little bit about some of the winter events that made Ethan Frome this symbol of hell. He is stuck in Starkfield, and there is no hope in his life.
The story revolves around Ethan, his wife Zeena, and his wife’s cousin Mattie Silver. Because it is such a short novella (about 140 pages in my edition), I’ll leave the details of the plot for your discovery. Suffice it to say, it’s about life, and the futility of finding joy. It’s about relationships, and one’s inability to find satisfaction in life through them.
I read this for my Classics Reading Group, and we (all three of us) found it a quick read, one that leaves you feeling depressed and not overly impressed (I hope I’m not misspeaking for any of us). I believed the unnamed narrator is unreliable, possibly skewing the facts of what really happened, but I was the only one who thought that. I like the supposition “What if the story had been told from Zeena’s perspective?”because I think something was left unsaid. I found Ethan horribly weak, but as the others in my group pointed out, what could he have done differently?
I found some guides online to help in garnering discussion and I found it amusing that Cliff’s Notes, for example, emphasized so much of the symbolism. It seems like a book a high school teacher would assign, because even things like the name “Starkfield” is full of obvious symbolism. It’s a shame, because I think this book would be a hated high school book.
Ethan Frome is an interesting work by Wharton. It reflected the lower classes and her other novels seem to be of wealthy New Yorkers. In the end, I didn’t love it, mostly because the frigid temperatures seemed to seep out of the city and into the souls of the characters. That was, I think, Wharton’s point.